[lounge music] ♪ ♪ ♪ ♪ [Narrator] On Story is brought to you in part by the Alice Kleberg Reynolds Foundation, a Texas family providing innovative funding since 1979.
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[waves] [kids screaming] [wind] [witch cackling] [sirens wail] [gunshots] [dripping] [suspenseful music] [telegraph beeping, typing] [piano gliss] From Austin Film Festival, this is "On Story."
A look inside the creative process from today's leading writers, creators, and filmmakers.
This week's "On Story," Chris Fedak discusses "Ambulance" and the art of writing the action sequence.
- The action movie is related to musicals and comedies, especially silent comedies.
And so when you think about the way movies worked back in the day, it's that they worked in 1,000-foot reels and that's 10 minutes.
I think that there's still something in that kind of natural evolution of what makes a movie is that like if a movie kind of works within like these 10-minute kind of intervals, it keeps the audience's attentions, they're involved.
[paper crumples] [typing] [carriage returns, ding] [Narrator] In this episode, Chris Fedak uses his feature screenplay "Ambulance," which he wrote for Universal Pictures and which was directed by Michael Bay, as a case study on writing complex action sequences that drive the plot forward.
[carriage returns, ding] It feels like it should have had a warning card at the beginning of the movie- - Why?
- About the adrenaline.
Like it's the ultimate, ultimate car chase, sort of that who knew you could do it for, what was the run time?
- It's over two hours, yeah.
I'd love to hear sort of the beginnings of the development of how, you know, this script came about.
- It actually took about 10 years.
I was finishing "Chuck" and it was the final season of the show and I have a Danish manager and Mikkel calls me, he says, "I just saw a movie" and this is how he talks.
"I saw something you have to, you have to watch it."
And it was like, "Okay."
And it was this small movie, a European film, "Ambulancen" from Denmark.
And it is a taut 80-minute thriller with also a lot of like really cool European touches, like ethereal touches.
It's like it actually has an angelic EMT character and it's these two brothers and it was a very interesting thing.
And what I liked about this movie was it was this tight little thriller, was really three characters inside a van.
And then my thought was, "What if you take that van, you put it in Los Angeles and you just [bleep] blow up half of the city?"
[audience laughing] You know, just like lay waste to the city 'cause like it's also one of those things, like every time I sit in traffic, I'm like, "What the [bleep] keeping me from getting to where I want to go?
It better be something good."
So I want bodies, I want blood.
Now, I take that idea and I go meet with my friend Jamie Vanderbilt.
And I had this notion of, it was a fusion of a bunch of things that had happened back when we were in school.
There was a number of robberies in Los Angeles.
Then there was another robbery, it was a giant, it was a big, it wasn't as dramatic, but it was a giant robbery where $32 million were stolen.
So I was like, "I wanna fuse all those things together and I wanna take a bunch of these pieces of this and that."
And also at the end of the North Hollywood shootout, there was a picture in "The L.A. Times" the next morning and it was of one of the robbers bleeding out on the ground.
His eyes open.
Now, he might have been dead, but the story was did they let him bleed out 'cause of what had just happened?
And so I was like, "I want a story where the EMT, who spent this entire movie trying to save this cop in the back and these two guys have [bleep] you know, I wanna see her try to have to save him.
I want to get to that point, where we're all the way through the looking glass emotionally, we've gone through all these crazy, you know, moves and that she now has to do simply her job."
'Cause I love that notion of it's like when you get out into the world, it's like fireman's got one job, cops got another job, EMTs got another job, doctors got a different job.
And I love when they all run into each other.
And I think that's so cool.
That feels like Los Angeles.
It feels like the world we live in.
And I love when they don't quite agree.
So I pitched that to Jamie.
He's like, "Cool" 'cause like we're just all writers now.
So instead of it being like executives and you gotta go convince people, it's just like "Cool."
I was like, "Great.
It'll be great."
And so I kind of got to a point years later, "Jamie, I got the script."
Send it to him and then he's like, "Oh wow, okay, yeah."
And then we started just, you know, we started and I developed it with a number of different directors over the years.
And I was always working on other TV shows.
And it was fun though 'cause like, okay, I'll go sit down with this director and we would talk about it and we'd work on the script.
Everyone had their own kind of influence of what they wanted to do with it and we'd get close and then something would happen.
But the pandemic rolls around and I was doing the second season of "Prodigal Son," but I got a call, which was like, "Michael Bay needs a movie and he needs a movie that's COVID-friendly."
Like something that they could do with the protocols.
And we were thinking "Ambulance."
I'm like, "Really?
We blow up half of Los Angeles with the ambulance?
But it was like, but there was, but the fact that we shot so much of it inside of a contained location, it was actually kind of made a bit of sense.
So Jamie, my friend, we send off the script to Michael Bay and then you'd go like, "That's not gonna [bleep] happen, that's crazy."
Well, next thing I know it's like, "Oh, he read it, he's in."
And then it's like, "All right, well let's see what in looks like."
"Jake's signing on too."
"What the [bleep] is going on here?"
[typewriter dings] - So we're actually gonna be starting to look at some of the clips- - Oh, God forbid.
- That you have chosen.
This is one of my favorite scenes in the movie.
The one, the bank scene, walking into the bank scene.
Which because of so much that's in it, that gives you the stuff for later, the payoff part.
- Kim, you have a visitor.
But make it quick.
This is gonna sound a little crazy.
- What is it?
- Well, I, I've, I've been in here, in the bank a few times.
Wow, it's really just me in here.
I, I was personally gonna, gonna try and play it a little cooler, but my, my partner in there, he's, he's right out there in this, in the car.
He just wanted me to come and say something to you.
'Cause I told myself that if I ever got the chance to that I would ask you out on a date.
- Like right now?
- Doesn't have to be.
- It's the worst timing on the planet for that guy, right?
All he wants to do is hook up.
- In the original movie "Ambulancen," it's like one shot where the guys just rush out of a bank and they get into an ambulance and there's a person having a heart attack in the back.
And I was like, "I know it has to be a police officer in the back of the ambulance and that's gonna make it much more like it's going to, it's important."
I remember knowing that this scene would be in this part of the story and that a coincidence, a small thing of like, just like a guy wants to go ask a girl out on a date is gonna literally lead to so much freaking chaos.
That's what I love.
Like your inciting incident doesn't always have to be like, you know, some huge thing or like, you know, pulling a sword out of a stone.
But like, it can be a guy just wants to go out on a date.
'Cause like this movie was also going to pull from a lot of the films that I grew up loving, you know, being "Die Hard" or another really important one is the original "Taking of Pelham 123."
And so when you look at those movies, there's always these small incidents, these small things, these little twists and turns.
And so, the tension is like, like you can do all these different things and we do a lot of explosions and whatnot and that's all in there.
But like I love that tension is you don't know what movie you're in yet.
Like, there's a moment early in "Die Hard" where I remember watching like the truck pull up and it's the first time I, when I was a little kid and I just remember watching that.
I was like, "I bet this is a movie where someone's gonna get run over by that truck."
And I was like, "No, no, no."
At a certain point you realize that's not what this movie is going to do.
- Let's go, let's go, let's go.
Let's go, Will, come on.
[dramatic music] [guns firing] [dramatic music] [people screaming] [bleep]!
- What'd you do, man?
[guns firing] [dramatic music] ♪ ♪ - You so quickly got rid of a bunch of people in a really gruesome way that I was honestly not expecting.
There's so many formulaic action films that get made and it was like, "Whoa, whoa.
I wasn't expecting that guy to go and that guy to go."
The feeling that I had when I was watching this was Michael Bay was saying, "These guys are getting assaulted.
I want you to feel assaulted too."
- It's all about maximum impact.
It's all about like, how do we take this thing on the page?
You know, you're trying to like tell a story.
So that's, there's a difference between you're trying to sell the script and then when you're in it with your director, now you're in like, it's almost like you're speaking a language that only he or she needs to really understand.
It's like you're trying to make it their movie.
You're trying to, so when they're looking at it, they know what they're going to do with it.
It was really about translating it into like this movie which could have been directed by a number of different people had to turn into a movie that was going to be directed by a very specific filmmaker who thinks about action in a very specific and knowledgeable way in regard to "I know how to do this, I know how to shoot this, and I know how to do it in the smallest amount of time."
But the genius of Michael is that he knows exact, he's been doing this for so long and has made so many of these types of movies.
He's like, "I can take all that and I can put it into these days."
And so the script began to reflect that, which is like, that's how you take the, you know, what was, you know, them escaping from the bank robbery and turn it into this kind of compressed action sequence where you could have, it was all these things kind of working together to kind of maximize, you know, what was actually gonna show up on screen, you know?
And also that it was important that Will shoot the cop.
That had to be him having made this terrible mistake.
The thing he could, like his worst day was compounding on top of itself.
Everything's compounding constantly.
So for Will, it had to be him, you know, 'cause for Danny, I'm gonna go back to the holy text, "Die Hard."
[audience laughing] There is one holy text, I go back to it often.
The first time John McClane comes up against a terrorist, what does he do?
He tries to arrest him.
You're under arrest.
It's so important because it means he's not an action star yet.
He's not like in, you know, in like one of the sequels.
It's like, "I'm gonna try to do my job."
And so for here, it was important to watch Will's beginning his evolution from home, trying to, you know, save his wife to now having done this terrible thing.
- We got it, baby.
Insurance coming through.
- I lose faith in this world on a daily basis.
Not in you though.
- I mean, we gonna be all right.
You think you can handle him for a few hours?
- Oh yeah, we're gonna sleep, right?
[baby crying] Maybe not.
- Yeah, a warehouse job.
- That's good, baby.
You can drive anything.
[soft music] [door creaking] [door shutting] Celebrate when you get back.
Somebody called from a blocked number earlier.
- I know what you're thinking.
It's not Danny.
I know you love him.
I know why.
But we don't need your brother.
- I got all I need right here.
Turn on the alarm.
- I wanna backtrack for a real quick second and ask about the relationship of the brothers and how that is really this architectural piece of the whole film, they're so opposite each other.
- There was brothers in the original movie.
In 2011, when I first heard the idea, somewhere it fused into my mind the VA was going through this terrible, you know, bureaucratic problems, and we had servicemen not getting, you know, medical care.
And I was like, "But that's [bleep] up."
And for me, that realness of like some real thing that like is happening in the world is like usually you don't put that into an action movie for a mass audience.
I was like, "That's a perfect setup for a character who we are are going to identify with."
You go and you serve for your country and then you come back and your wife isn't gonna get the medical care that she needs.
Will did come up, you know, on the wrong side of the tracks.
And that you know, that he had a brother who he wasn't supposed to be talking to.
And it's one of those things that like as you're working on your story and there was always a scene where his wife would say, "I got a call from a blocked number" and we know it's the older brother that he's not supposed to be talking to.
And it's like, even as you write it, the mystery in your head is you're starting to fill in like, "Well, why wouldn't you talk to your brother?
And who is that, you know, what is that dynamic between the two of them?"
And then Michael included like this notion of like, "Well, let's seek glimpses of their past."
And it's one of those examples, like as a writer I'm like, "Scenes are scenes" and you know, I didn't see that, I didn't think to include that.
But when you're a director who's done as much as, you know, it's like he knows what he can do and it works.
It's like it's this neat kind of ethereal element kind of infused into the story.
- Well, but when you go back to the Bible, John McClane is clearly our protagonist.
- In here, I would not go into this and say that any one of them is clearly our protagonist, right?
I didn't watch it that way.
It was like- - No, I like it, I like criticism here up on stage, it's great.
[audience laughing] No, it's great.
Here's the thing, it's like this was, this movie was designed to be messy.
It's not here to say it's like "Will's a good guy and he does everything the right way."
No, he shoots a police officer.
It's like, this is not okay.
The notion that the good guys show up and they shoot the bad guy and then everybody succeeds and wins and walks away, that doesn't always happen, you know?
And I thought that was such an interesting thing to explore is like sometimes when the cops show up, it's like, you know, it's bad, more bad things happen.
And it's not because they're not trying to do something, it's just because they don't have the information.
They don't know who is, who's dangerous or if even if the cop's alive in the back of the ambulance.
I think that's what's neat.
John McClane though is like, going back to the holy text, but in that movie it's like, behind it is the husband-wife relationship.
It's about a guy trying to get back to his wife to apologize for being a [bleep].
Whereas in this one, it is about Will trying to get back to his wife, but he's doomed.
- So let's go into this, which should have almost gotten an X rating, I think.
- Skin is open.
- Then you and your criminal friend right there put both of your hands in the wound and I need you to spread the muscle apart.
- Man, the way people drive in this city.
- Stop yelling.
- Slow down.
You cannot do this at 60 miles an hour.
- That was just an amazing, amazing layered like something.
So again, also rewound that one a couple of times when I watched it 'cause it was like so much stuff in there, the whole layering of the guys on the cell phone.
- I always go back to Elmer Leonard and I went to see him speak at the WGA a million years ago and he was just like, "You know, people are always asking like how do I come up with this stuff?
Or how am I funny or witty?"
It's just like, or quick.
And I'm like, "I'm not," but I write it and then I come back to it when I have that quick thing and I put it in there.
So what happens in this story is that this scene was always in the script, but then what you realize is that as you kind of lay the thing out, you start to compound it and compress it and then you can have three or four things going on.
Because not only is this the coolest scene where she saves the guy, but it's also because the doctors don't see it, it's the inciting incident for the next sequence.
If you're thinking about 10-inute reels, the next sequence will be the sniper sequence where the cops think he's dead.
We're also setting up our next 10-minute problem, which is, you know, how we're gonna get into that.
And this also would speak to Cam, it would speak to her character, it would speak to who she wanted to be.
Originally, she wanted to be a doctor, you know, and she's good at it.
And there was a moment in the script, it's not in the movie, but it was where it was like the surgeons are watching and they're like, "She's got good hands.
Because this is the type of thing that only some people can do.
I can't pull somebody's guts out of them.
And now it's, what's interesting is the criminal friend, that line is improv by the guy on the golf course who's a real surgeon.
Those are real surgeons.
And it was shot in Florida.
So Michael had gone back to Florida and we were like, "Okay, we'll pick up this scene in a hospital somewhere in Florida."
But of course, it's COVID.
So I'm like, "Why don't we just put it on a golf course?
You know, doctors are there too, you know?"
And so he had his, he had, you know, friends who were surgeons.
So they were like, "Well, yeah, we can do this."
And so it's the two of them out there on a real golf course.
And then, you know, and everything happening inside the van is that kind of contained thriller.
That's the original contained thriller that was COVID-friendly.
So it's about compacting and taking tensions and kind of putting them all on top of themselves and setting up your next problem that is gonna be coming down the road.
- Well, so let's talk about that part, that 10-minute thing you're talking about.
This 10-minute reel.
I mean, is this how you approached the entire film?
It's like in these modules.
- The action movie is related to musicals and comedies, especially silent comedies.
And so, when you think about the way movies worked back in the day, it's that they worked in 1,000-foot reels and that's 10 minutes.
So one reeler would be 10 minutes.
So I think that there's still something in that kind of natural evolution of what makes a movie is that like, if a movie kind of works within like these 10-minute kind of intervals, you know, like how Charlie Chaplin would've like learned how to make a movie, then it keeps the audience's attention sitting in a theater, especially in more painful seats back in the day, is like they're involved.
They know that you have to keep kind of moving the problem and changing the story and also kind of like, you know, twisting it, you know, twisting it constantly along the way.
So I do sometimes view things in ten-minute intervals.
- You know, I mean, you really are always setting something else up that's crucial to the rest of the story, right?
- But I think one of the things that you notice with writers that write scripts that are, that you wanna read, that you find yourself enjoying as you're going through them is that they're doing a lot of setup, especially at the beginning of the story.
But then, you know, they probably have written the 200 page draft of this thing and then what what they do is they start to shrink it and they start to kind of know that if I'm gonna keep somebody's interest, if I'm going to kind of drive that story along, then you're kind of like, oh, all the layers can kind of be on top of themselves.
You can be doing two, three, four things at the same time in a scene.
- Let's take scene five.
- Green to go.
Take, take the shot if you got it.
[suspenseful music] [Man] Target one green.
- Kill shots.
Nothing gets in the back.
We've got friendlies.
- On my call.
[Man] Target two red.
Target two not clear.
- What about Zach?
I can't protect him.
- What are you talking about?
- Yes, he's alive.
- Hey, he's alive.
Our cop's alive.
[suspenseful music] - Snipers.
- Black building.
[guns firing] [tires screeching] [cars exploding] - That's also just one of those moments where it feels like everybody is just trying to do their job, but nobody really knows what's going on.
- There's no bad guys.
- Yeah, there's no bad guys.
- I mean, there are bad guys, but there's also no bad guys, in the sense that, well, there are bad guys.
I'm not saying it's okay to rob banks.
I'm not not saying it's okay to rob banks.
But just like, just think about your problems that the scene before leads to the sniper sequence.
Now the sniper sequence leads to Danny losing it.
And so now the guy who is emotionally volatile, psychopathic, he is in a bad state.
So now it leads to the next sequence.
Now it's pushing us back to Cam's gonna become the possible victim.
That Cam is now, even though she saved them, she becomes the representation of authority for Danny and now he's gonna focus on her.
So we're now going into an even darker place of like, "Is he gonna lose it?"
Because we've set up in the dynamic of the brothers, there's one brother who left.
Going to the military was Will getting out, getting away from their poisonous father.
Danny stayed, he's a criminal.
He was destroyed by his father.
He's the powder keg now.
So now the story kind of folds back inside into the ambulance and it's about the powder keg is gonna blow, it's gonna be an emotional thing.
It's gonna be about Danny and Jake and his incredible performance.
But all those things are set up.
They're all moving and causing new problems to form.
Somebody help him.
- Come on.
- Don't let him die.
Please, don't let him die.
Somebody help him.
Please somebody help my husband.
- You need to forget him.
I didn't finish the job.
- He's gonna die.
He's my husband, please.
[man gasping] - Hey, stop, this is a crime scene.
- Get off of me.
[dramatic music] Will.
Come on, Will, come on.
Hey, look at me.
Look at me.
Your wife is right here.
You can do this.
You can do this, Will.
Will, you got this.
What is wrong with you?
Oh my God.
- We'll get to him soon.
- He'll be dead soon.
Help me now.
- All right, it's the teary part of the action film.
- It's an action film with emotions.
- Yes, I'm actually even worried about how long he's going to jail and when the kid will see him again and stuff, so.
Or is he is even gonna survive?
It's like, and it's interesting because there was iterations of the story where it ended pretty much here.
A lot of the things that were added, even the money, like in the first drafts of the script, there was no money being placed into a baby carrier.
You know, those were all things that as I worked on it with different directors, you know, we found opportunities for like there to be these, it's not like we're saying everything's okay, but we're just saying that there's a part of this story which is there can be some reconciliation, there can be some hope.
And it was interesting, especially with Michael that in our first conversation, like, you know, talking to him, he had like a couple of ideas and one of the ideas was "I want to go back to the six-year-old girl at the end of the story."
And it's an emotional thing.
Your gut says, "I know what the story is, I know how to tell that story."
I didn't know how to tell this story until I figured out Cam.
And when Cam, in the original "Ambulancen" the Cam is a almost an angelic character.
It's very cool, but it wouldn't work for this story.
And then once I realized that Cam was the best EMT in that she had this drive that she could keep anybody alive for 15 minutes.
And once I had that, I knew that, you know, her saving Will was the north star of the movie.
I was gonna head toward that.
And then what's great is that that's her technical, like I can physically do this thing, but then going back to see the little girl at the end of the movie, it means she cares.
Like she is touched emotionally.
You know, she does have this heart that she hides from everyone.
'Cause like even if we can kind of intellectually say to ourselves that like, "You know, I don't, I'm fine, I'm fine.
I don't have feelings or emotions, stuff like that.
They're beneath there.
And that's what I loved about it.
So Michael was like another addition where you're just like, "That's great."
You know, it's like it allows you to have hope and it also tells you something about the character.
- But so that would be my argument as to the conflict over the protagonist because I would call her the protagonist.
But, and I agree with that and I think that was also one of the reasons why the movie didn't get made originally.
Because when you go out to kind of like put together a movie, you usually start with your leads.
And I think a lot of actors looked at that script and they were like, "I think Cam's the main character."
And what's so awesome about Yahya and Jake is that they fully commit to characters who are flawed.
And that's the kind of amazing thing for me is to hand the script over and to watch, like these people all at the top of their game, fully commit to characters who are flawed and then secretly, the female lead is the hero of the story.
You know, and that for me, is awesome.
There's a lot of action movies and I love action movies, all of them.
Not all of them.
But you know what's gonna happen.
And I think that, hope that anyone who went into the theater, you don't know how this movie's gonna end.
[typewriter dings] [Narrator] You've been watching "On Writing Action: Ambulance with Chris Fedak" on "On Story."
On Story is part of a growing number of programs in Austin Film Festival's On Story project that also includes the "On Story" radio program, podcast, book series, and the "On Story" archive accessible through the Wittliff Collections at Texas State University.
To find out more about On Story and Austin Film Festival, visit onstory.tv or austinfilmfestival.com.
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